Not wasting anytime once the NHL markets reopened after the expansion draft, on Thursday not too long after the 1pm reopen, the Hurricanes traded goalie Alex Nedeljkovic to the Detroit Red Wings for a third round draft pick and negotiating rights to Jonathan Bernier. Bernier is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next week, so he represents not so much the return of a player but rather a few days head start in negotiations if he and the Canes are a good match for both.
The move was maybe not as surprising as some might think. The challenge with Nedeljkovic is that though he was scheduled to become a restricted free agent, he had arbitration rights. With strong results in an impressive even if small sample 2021-22 season, the upside comparable from his side was goin to be Jordan Binnington who received a two-year contract for $4.4 million after his Cam Ward-like rookie season that ended with a Stanley Cup win. Who knows how close Nedeljkovic could would have been to that ceiling, but with the unpredictability of arbitration the potential was there.
At the end of the day, I think it really came down to a single question — How much faith would they put in Alex Nedeljkovic based on 23 starts in a strong rookie seasonhow much risk were they willing to take?
Yes. Nedeljkovic was good in a small sample size, but I just do not think the team’s brain trust viewed him as a ‘the guy’ type of goalie and rightfully so considers him to be a bit riskier than a veteran with a longer track record. At the point when he was trying to play his way up from #3 slot to prove he could be a capable backup in 2021-22, he was a good fit at a budget-priced $1-1.5 million. That salary would have left as much room as possible for other deals and also left open the possibility of adding another goalie via trade during the season if things did not work out. But Nedeljkovic overshot that budget price and now had to be considered as a full price 1A/1B option. An the team basically out of the risk at that price.
What is next?
The burning question is what the team will now do in net. Petr Mrazek figures to still be in the potential mix but is unsigned meaning the Hurricanes have two slots to maneuver with.
Recent history suggests that the team has a preference for middle-priced veterans versus going big for a higher-end #1. Petr Mrazek was initially signed as an inexpensive reclamation project and then only re-signed after a bit of a delay when he was available for a moderate place and short two-year term. Curtis McElhinney came from waivers and was not re-signed despite fitting in well. And James Reimer more than anything is what the Hurricanes had to take to unload Scott Darling. The Hurricanes era in three years under Don Waddell has exactly zero instances of the Hurricanes taking a pile of cash to the goalie market and being willing to pay any kind of premium.
If the Hurricanes follow that path, this off-season could be a good one for finding two medium-priced options. Jonathan Bernier whose negotiating rights were acquired in the trade (He becomes an unrestricted free agent next week.) is coming off a pretty good season with a Red Wings team was entered the season clearly in rebuilding mode. With Petr Mrazek also still in the mix that could be a tandem that would be pretty comparable to the Mrazek/Reimer duo that figured to do the heavy lifting last year.
With the Hurricanes trying push up another level in the playoffs, I argued recently that an upgrade or two in the bottom half of the roster were unlikely to be the difference. After standing pat last season, might trading Nedeljkovic be a precursor to taking a swing for the fences? If the Hurricanes decided to and were able to add a higher-end #1 goalie, it would be difficult to make $3 million or more work for the #2.
In my article on Wednesday, I noted Anaheim’s John Gibson as a intriguing option even before the team parted ways with Nedeljkovic. (That article also mentioned Jonathan Bernier.) You can read that HERE. I would have figured Nedeljkovic to be a logical part of such a trade, but who knows.
Other higher-end options who could be be available include Philipp Grubauer, Marc-Andre Fleury in the last year of his deal, Darcy Kuemper, a bit of a reclamation bet on Braden Holtby and a few others.
My two cents
Despite never being as high on Nedeljkovic as the consensus, I am not immediately a fan Thursday’s trade. It is not that I am completely sold on Nedeljkovic maintaining his level of play from 23 games in 2021-22. It is that with high-end starting goalies so difficult to find, I think that dice roll is worth keeping. Presumably the Hurricanes could have signed Nedeljkovic to the same two-year deal for $3 million per year or could otherwise have pushed for one year at a higher price or via arbitration. That would have given the team a full season to see if they had something special. The upside of finding a rarity in a franchise type goalie who is only 25 years old is incredibly high, whereas the downside would have only been going a year or two further. The downside risk would have been hedged pretty well by having a medium-priced 1B also on the roster. In general, I actually like the Hurricanes decisiveness in terms of making judgements on players early and unloading players who did not fit, but in this case I feel like the team sold low on a player whose upside, even if uncertain, was very high.
Per above, the one disclaimer that I make is that if the plan (and it works) is to add someone like Gibson and try to spend a bit less on the backup, I think then this move moves more sense.
Mark me down as first on John Gibson a couple days before the Nedeljkovic trade. 🙂 Still seems like a longer shot since he has not really even been declared available, but I think that is the kind of move that could make sense.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on off-loading Alex Nedeljkovic for a very modest return?
2) What do you figure the plan/strategy is for Canes netminding? Do you see this as an evaluation of Nedeljkovic and a preference to go with two veterans in a 1A/1B setup similar to the past couple years? Or do you think this could be the precursor to taking a swing for the fences with a higher-end goalie?
3) Who do you want for the Canes two goalies for 2021-22? Who do you think the team will sign?